A marketer’s guide to great customer interviews

A crucial element of marketing success is the ability to understand customers and gather great insights for marketing action. Interviewing people may seem like a simple task, one that anyone can do. If you have tried your hand at interviewing customers yourself, you would know that gathering breakthrough insights is more complex than it looks. 

In this article I would like to share a few guidelines for conducting great interviews with stakeholders – customers, partners, employees, external experts and more. These tips are relevant for in-person as well as online/phone interviews.

  1. Take off your marketer’s hat, prepare like a researcher
  2. Have a conversation, do not interview
  3. Listen deeply, offer your complete attention

Take off your marketer’s hat, prepare like a researcher

Clearly define your objectives before conducting research or interviews. What do you want to learn from different groups of interviewees? What do you hope to achieve at the end of your research?

Prepare a discussion guide or questionnaire that aligns with your objectives. Organize the questions under specific headers. Even if you do not remember all the questions you want to cover, keep in mind the headers to guide the conversations. 

As a marketer you are very close to your brand. It is easy to fall into the trap of asking leading questions. This is exactly what you should avoid to obtain authentic insights. For example, do not ask, “What do you like about x?” before the interviewee tells you that they like or dislike x. Leave the questions open-ended unless you are asking them to rate or prioritize options.

Have a conversation, do not interview

As a marketer, you have specific objectives with which you go to meet customers or partners. Those questions are the foremost on your mind but you have to make them feel comfortable in the conversation before delving into your specific questions. 

Begin with introducing yourself, your background and what you are doing there. Opening up about yourself establishes trust and brings the interviewee’s guard down.  Ask for a similar introduction from the interviewee. When you spend time doing this, it sets a tone of sharing and openness from the beginning. 

Start with easier and straightforward questions. Keep the more involved or personal questions for later in the conversation. 

As with all great conversations, the discussions can diverge from where you started. Allow for spontaneous flow of conversation. It can lead to insights that you wouldn’t have normally by following a structured questionnaire. At times the divergence may go too far and threaten to take over the interview. At these times, gently steer the conversation back to the topic under discussion.

Relax and have fun (unless you are discussing a serious topic!). People generally love a good, fun conversation so crack a few jokes, remark on something interesting and laugh with the interviewees. The lives of people are actually quite fascinating, and this is not difficult to do. Multiple interviews may drain your energy without the element of fun.

Listen deeply, offer your complete attention

Deep listening means being genuinely interested in what customers have to say, and using body language and verbal cues to show that you’re listening. Even in video or audio interviews, simple things like nodding your head, making eye contact, and using encouraging words can help the interviewee feel more comfortable and open up more.

It’s also important to keep listening even after the interview is over. Often, the most important things are said as the interviewee is leaving, when they’re feeling more relaxed and less under pressure. So be slow to leave!

For a marketer, conversing with diverse people from across the world could be the most fulfilling part of understanding customers. It teaches us not only about people but life itself. Having to park our own prejudices and opinions to listen and understand others is a great exercise in learning to be more accepting and empathetic. Empathy and understanding customer vantage point are the hallmarks of a great marketer.

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